Adult adoptees press governments to open up their birth records
A journey of the heart
Adult adoptees press governments to open up their birth records
Cecelia has always known she was adopted. Her parents, Sharon and John Cashore—the latter, British Columbia’s minister of aboriginal affairs—have fair complexions. Cecelia has dark hair and eyes that, her parents explained, came from her birth father, a native Canadian; her birth mother was of French-Canadian origin. But that was never enough for the young girl growing up in Vancouver. Were her birth parents beautiful and rich, she wondered, or drug-takers on Davie Street? In 1987, at the age of 24 and soon after the birth of her first child, Cecelia Reekie—her married name—went looking for the answers.
She gave what information she had to Parent Finders, a private nationwide support group with a chapter in Vancouver. Three days later, after consulting their database of parents and adoptees who had voluntarily registered, agency workers handed Cecelia what she had been looking for: her birth mother’s name and phone number. The woman, Marguerite Wood, a homemaker who has been married to the same man for 25 years, was ecstatic about finding her daughter—her only child—after 11 years of searching. “A spot in my heart was always empty,” says Wood, an unwed mother when she gave up her daughter under family pressure. Cecelia’s birth father is a hereditary chief and, for Reekie, a window into an exciting world that she would otherwise have known little about. “I love my adoptive parents,” she says, “but they can’t give me my own history.”
The vast majority of reunions between adopted children and their birth parents are not so easily arranged. Without identifying information, such as an unusual birth name or birth circumstances, most searchers must resort to provincial government agencies, which keep confidential records of all adoptions. But the names of birth parents cannot be released until the parent, usually the mother, has been located—a process that can take months or longer—and grants permis-
sion. In recent years, the demand for such information has escalated sharply, as children bom in the late 1960s and 1970s, the peak years for adoption, reach adulthood. That has resulted in long waiting lists for adoption information in some provinces: in Ontario alone, the list contains thousands of names, which translates into waiting periods of six years or more. In response, three provinces have announced in the past year that they plan to open their
adoption records. If legislation is implemented in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, adoptees will be able to gain immediate access to their birth records, with certain exceptions to protect adoptees and birth parents who request anonymity.
Of course, for all the happiness that a reunion with a birth parent or adopted child can bring, the meeting can also be fraught with emotional turmoil. Adoptees often report that they find themselves unprepared for the intensity of the feelings they experience, which can range from joy to disappointment to outright anger if a birth parent fails to respond or establish a relationship. Some birth parents have actively opposed open records, causing at least one province, Alberta, to abandon the idea. More and more, however, social workers and psychologists have come to advocate open records. In addition to seeking basic information such as medical background, adoptees often need to meet a birth parent to understand fully why they were given up. “The lives of many adoptees begin at Chapter 2,” says University of Guelph psychology professor Michael Sobol, Canada’s leading expert on adoption and the co-author of a recent national study. “Finding their birth parents is part of their personal gestalt and helps complete their identity.”
Cecelia Reekie and her family are an example of the joy that can result when all members of the adoption triangle work
together. Her mother, Sharon Cashore, was not immune to the fears that many adoptive parents experience in reunion situations. ‘When Cecelia met Marguerite, I was afraid she might love or need me less,” says Cashore, now 53. “But the whole experience has been really wonderful. It has strengthened our relationship, not weakened it.” According to Sobol, adoptive parents like Cashore who fully support a child’s search for birth parents find their relationship with their child to be enhanced. “It’s like saying, ‘I love you so much that I will help you look,’ ” he says.
Things can go wrong, however. Robert Kirner, 35, a freelance writer who lives in Montreal, searched for his birth mother through a Quebec government social agency. In 1992, three years after his first request, a social worker located his mother, but told Kirner that she refused to see him. “I was stunned,” he recalls. “The refusal left me numb.” It has not, however, sated his appetite for information, or curbed his determination to find her. “I don’t want to cause shame and pain,” he says, “and I don’t want a relationship, but my right to know is greater than her right to privacy.”
Kimer’s doggedness is typical of adoptees whose search has been thwarted. Partly for that reason, the proposed legislation in Ontario, which has passed second reading, would allow adoptees to retrieve the name of their birth parents, even if the parents have notified the government that they do not wish to be found. But if adoptees attempt to make contact in such cases, they would be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. (Birth parents would not have a similar right to the names of the children they have placed for adoption.) Joan Belford, a policy analyst with the Ontario ministry of community and social services, says that other countries with open re-
'Finding their birth parents is part of their personal gestalt and helps them complete their identity’
cords have found that withholding names does not work. “It just makes people mad, and they end up looking harder,” she says. “But if they have the name and the reason for refusal, they tend to respect that.” Ontario is alone in this absence of a complete veto. The recommendations in British Columbia and Nova Scotia—they have not yet been converted into legislation—call for opening the records to either birth parents or children, but not if either party objects. Freedom to search, however, may bring with it freedom to stumble. Under the current
system, searchers who use government agencies—the vast majority— must go through an intermediary. Although that can make for slow progress, it ensures that the profound emotional impact of a reunion, or of refusal, can be cushioned by the counselling of a trained third party. “An intermediary is absolutely vital,” says Maralyn Widdicombe, a social worker in Montreal, who has been the go-between for many adoptees. “You just never know what you are going to find when you open that file. It can
often be very traumatic for everyone involved.” With the advent of open records, searchers will be free to bypass counselling and go straight to the person they are seeking.
One 40-year-old Toronto woman, who requested anonymity, wants no part of that kind of surprise contact. When she gave birth at the age of 15 to her son, not even her sisters and brothers knew of her pregnancy. “It leaves a little twist in your soul that never goes away,” she says, remembering how her parents bundled her off to a home for unwed
mothers, left her to go through labor alone and then never spoke of the event again. “I may want to see my son someday, but I can’t face it yet,” says the woman, who has two young daughters. “And I think it does the child a great disservice if the parent does not want to meet. It’s too painful a rejection.”
The ultimate protection from such upheaval, others say, is simply not to search. Robert Macdonald, 37, says that he is perfectly content not to know anything about his birth parents. A salesman for a promotion company in Dartmouth, N.S., Macdonald says the absence of birth parents has not created any gaps in his sense of personal identity. “I consider my parents to be my parents, and I’m content with that,” he says. “I don’t know why I was adopted, but I’m sure there was a good reason for it.”
Many adoptive parents feel even more strongly. One southwestern Ontario woman, who asked not to be named, believes that her adult adopted daughter might be profoundly disturbed if her birth parents appeared in her life. “My daughter does not think of herself as adopted, and I choose not to think of her as adopted,” she says. “I’m her mother, damn it. If a woman decides not to keep her child, that is the severance of it.”
But according to Sobol, adoptees who genuinely have no interest in looking for their birth parents are in the minority. “Most have an intense desire to know about their roots,” he says, “although many of them never actually initiate a search.” Many of those who do—and whose stories have happy endings—have become committed to the cause. “There’s a lack of continuity in our world,” says Michael Slayter, 40, a member of Parent Finders in Halifax, who in the past two years has found his own birth parents. “We’re not out to look for new parents—our adoptive moms and dads are our parents. But not knowing who your birth parents are is a missing link.”
The root of the problems experienced by some adoptees, Sobol says, is the painful secrecy that commonly surrounded adoptions in the postwar period. Adoption works best, Sobol says, when it is fully and easily talked about by adoptive parents and their children. For that reason, Sobol believes that all future adoptions should be conducted differently than in the past. Instead of assuring birth parents of lifelong privacy—an agreement that, once made, should be kept, he emphasizes—anyone placing a child for adoption should be aware that his or her name may be released when the child reaches the age of 19. “When you study adoption,” Sobol says, “you learn that the things that make an adoptive family work are the very same things that make any other family work: open communication, acknowledgment of differences and concern about personal identity.” In an age of increasing openness, access to a full family history may soon become a fundamental right.
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